Peter Richard Nichols was born and grew up in Bristol, in the generation that went through grammar school in the wake of local hero Cary Grant’s rise to fame. Nichols has documented his early years in Bristol in two of his stage plays and, most extensively, in his autobiography, Feeling You’re Behind. Nichols’s family home, Palatine Lodge, was a rambling sort of unfashionable house located across the street from a large boys’ orphanage that would serve during the war as an American military barracks. The presence of the orphanage, the example of Cary Grant, and the excitement of the American influx combined in Nichols’s upbringing to create an environment that was alternatively daunting or rife with the potential for upward mobility.
Both of Nichols’s parents were performers of a sort. His mother, Violet Poole, had certificates in both piano and voice from the London Academy of Music and tutored students at home during the week. After the war broke out, she began to perform occasionally in service reviews but always when husband Richard, a traveling salesperson, was away. The interest her performances aroused in the audience almost led to a split in the family during the war, but Nichols’s parents eventually reunited. Richard Nichols was a self-styled musical-hall clown and classical music collector. The monologue passages in Forget-Me-Not Lane and the autobiography appear to have been lifted almost verbatim from the bitterly comic routines the elder Nichols rehearsed at home and then used in local club performances. When Peter Nichols first tried his hand at performance, as “the Miserable Mirth Maker” in wartime service reviews, his act owed something to his father’s precedent. The strong, eccentric style developed by his father later constituted an important obstacle for the younger Nichols (who also had to overcome his father’s admonition that motivation for success should come from making a habit of “feeling you’re behind”), until Peter managed to master and use the style for his own effects.
While attending Bristol Grammar School, Nichols cultivated a comic self-image, and his exploits with his best friend, Cliff Browne, a gifted cartoonist, centered on the kind of irreverent ironic invention that would later pepper the sentiment of plays such as A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. When Nichols joined the military after the war, however, his attitude shifted; he became a dedicated diarist, trying hard to impress the other servicemen with his sophistication. Stationed in a dismal camp near Calcutta during the Indian independence movement, a melancholy Nichols observed with some detachment the effects of political conflict and maintained the discipline of...
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